TAMPA — Fearing she would lose her composure, Belinda Brown wrote down everything she wanted to say at Friday's sentencing of the man who murdered her teenage son.
She titled her statement: Justice for my son Torrie Leon McDuffie.
But in this case, justice is elusive. As the mother watched 21-year-old Dexter Bell get sentenced to 35 years in prison, she knew others were still free. At least four guns were fired.
On a Thursday night three years ago, more than a dozen people were standing on a corner in a neighborhood near Clair Mel when two cars drove by, guns ablaze.
Their targets were a group of people who had thrown cinder blocks at one of their cars. McDuffie wasn't the instigator. He was 16, an honor student at Blake High School, a football player excited to buy his first car with money he'd saved from his first job.
He had just walked to the corner when a bullet struck his head. He didn't survive.
Deputies found Bell when he showed up at Tampa General Hospital shot in the hand. Prosecutors say the bullet came from a gun fired across him from the driver's seat. The identities of the others were no mystery, but investigators didn't have enough evidence to charge them. Eyewitnesses ducked as the men shot. Only Bell left physical evidence.
During the trial, a prosecutor couldn't prove Bell fired the killing shot, but showed that he participated in the deadly caravan. He pointed a gun out the window. And he shot. A jury decided he was guilty of second-degree murder and attempted murder.
The defense asked for the minimum sentence, 20 years. The prosecution asked for life, which Judge William Fuente declined based on the degree of the crime.
Six deputies stood guard in a room full of McDuffie's friends and relatives as Fuente announced the 35-year sentence followed by 15 years of probation. There were no outbursts.
McDuffie's mother just listened and cried. Belinda Brown had wanted life, but had agreed to give Bell a plea deal of 20 years, which he turned down. She wanted this to be over.
Torrie was her only son, her youngest child. He could have been in college now.
Brown never read her statement at the sentencing, because she feared becoming upset. A prosecutor read it as the mother buried her head in her hands and cried.
Every day, Brown wrote, the same thought comes into her mind. It's the last thing she thinks of when she falls asleep and the first when she wakes up, the image of her dying son on the ground.
These are her son's final moments, in her own words:
He was very calm, but he kept trying to get out his last words to me …
I'm steady crying, but I didn't want my baby to get upset …
"Don't talk, baby. It's going to be okay. They're on their way."
But he kept responding … "Ma."
"Ma, I love you."
Those were his last words to me. And I said, "I love you."
And he closed his eyes forever.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.